Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Busoni also has a Hammerklavier-like Sonata; Dohnanyi's lat 2nd Symphony brings back world of Mahler

I’ve written recently about the Beethoven Hammerklavier Sonata and a similar work by Brahms (Sonata 1), but I found a Piano Sonata in F Minor by Ferruccio Busoni, performed by Bruce Wolosoff, in 1986, on a Japanese Columbia Sony (Music and Arts Programs of America) CD at home.

The work runs about 31 minutes and has three movements.  The opening Allegro Risoluto starts with a rising rocket theme and  takes us on an adventure. The Andante is really more like a big romantic Adagio. The Finale, after a slow introduction, presents us with an episodic  fugue in the spirit of the Hammerklavier, then brings back the rocket theme and builds to a stunning conclusion.  F Minor is usually not my favorite key for this kind of work, as the Picardy close leads to a major key seeming to be pastoral in nature.  The work sounds a bit like Brahms and is much more German than Italian in character.  (Brahms made F Minor work as the key for this Third Sonata, remember.)

Busoni is known for his Piano Concerto in C Major, which has a male chorus in the finale and is one of the longest in the literature (except for Furtwangler’s). 

Also, try the 1996 Chandos recording of the Symphony #2  in E Major of Ernst von Dohnanyi.  The composer is known for his postromantic youthful masterpieces (the Piano Quintet and sprawling Piano Concerto #1 are both teenage works). The Second Symphony is late, composed in the WWII years when he was in his sixties, but it sounds youthful – but also penultimate. The work spans 50 minutes, and is almost like a middle Mahler symphony. The 20 minute finale is a theme and variations followed by – again – a colossal fugue.  It’s back to Bach on steroids.

Note: On rehearing the Sonata Dec. 30, 2013, I added these notes:

For a little more to review today, I played a 1988 Denon CD recording by pianist Bruce Wolosoff of the early Piano Sonata in F Minor, Op. 20a, composed in 1883 by a then seventeen year-old Ferruccio Busoni.  I don’t know why there is an “a” on the opus number, but the manuscript was rediscovered in 1925 and published in 1983. 

The work is a three-movement, ambitious late romantic work, running a half hour.  The first movement (Allegro Risoluto Vivace ed energico) seems to resemble the young Brahms, with a rising theme that often modulates by half-steps.  The exposition itself comes to a climax on that theme, that anticipates the triumphant close with a Picard Third. The slow movement, Andante con moto, improvises episodes around a tender theme in B-flat.  The Finale (“Nella guesa d’un improvviszione  [attempt at]”, Allegro fugato). It starts out with more improvisatory gestures (like the finale of Brahms’s Second Sonata) then settles on a marcato fugue subject, which Busoni builds into a grandiose double fugue, before returning to the opening subject of the subject, now as a even more grandiose chorale.  This piece seems to want to be a symphony.  F does not seem like the best tonality for such a progression, because of its pastoral personality. Busoni is well known for counterpoint and transcriptions of Bach, and here his writing reminds one of the grandiosity of some fugal writing of a teenage contemporary, Eugen d’Albert, who provided a fugal cadenza to his first piano concerto.

Busoni wrote once that “Improvisation would come closest to the essential nature of art if only it were within man’s power to master inspiration extempore.”  I’ve always heard that jazz is based on improvisation, even from a coworker who was a great exponent of it in the 1970’s. 

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